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To evil, or not to evil...


Myth Weaver
Mother Nature is a whore, red in tooth and claw.

Or, your cute cuddly kitten is terror incarnate to assorted mice, birds, squirrels, and other small creatures.

Amoral, not evil. Cosmic alieness and indifference. Themes central to Lovecraft.

Also applies to more than a few human societies.

Let that be your foe.


I don't think their concepts of what is wrong are very similar to our concept of evil.

Well, yeah, because the West is mostly founded on Judea-Christian philosophy with a heaping helping of Greek philosophy.

Beyond that, I think it’s just a ping pong of words when trying to differentiate “wrong” and “evil”.
I guess it begs the question of how do you define “our concept of evil”.
Is there any way to have characters talk about actions which are almost universally regarded as revolting and needlessly cruel without using the term evil?

Yes, absolutely, but it would seem to require world building the culture and their belief systems from the ground up. Cause and effect. Historical perspective all from scratch. In a world with a severe shortage of food and rationing, stealing, poaching or hoarding might be seen as a great evil, sparking backlash and judgement.

I like to take a look at something like the US gasoline shortage of the 70's, when odd-even rationing went into effect. Lines were long and people with two cars that bore plates that allowed them to fill up their tanks on different days, were considered revolting, and for some just a step away from being called evil as the crisis worsened. People were outraged.

In the context of a story, I'd applaud an author who decided to use a different word for what most might label as "evil". Especially if it gave them the chance to explain the cultural meaning through the dialogue or actions of characters and they have worked to make that definition, and distinction, original.

I don't need actons/scope to be EVIL to make me care. In fact, quite the opposite. Show me something I can relate to and I will be more likely to buy in. Genocide has little effect on me as a reader because I cannot relate to it personally. I can't feel it though I understand and grasp it. The scope/scale is too large. Is it evil? Sure. Still, it can't really move me as much as a character who is trying to right something like unnecessary hunger or a pleasure taken in cruelty that is shown towards one person.

Evil, throughout our world, has had strong roots in religion and/or is driven by the need to label the unknown, what we fear or misunderstand, and plain prejudice as well. That works in story too.

I DO like Demesnedenoire's take on owning it though. It just can't be one dimensional or absolutely irredeemable for me to be able to buy in. That works for some but it's not my taste. :)
I've always thought of evil as a kind of supernatural essence that exists independently of people but can infuse and inspire an individual to do bad things.

From that perspective, to refer to a person as evil is either a hyperbole personification of that supernatural essence, or a reference to that person being so infused/inspired.

Insolent Lad

Dualities of one sort or another have always been popular (and not just in fantasy writing). We had the Chaos vs Order thing of Moorcock, Zelazny, Anderson. Very popular not so long ago but it became a bit of a cliche, even though it is somewhat built into the whole Indo-European pantheon. That is, the gods came to bring order out of the primordial chaos, and thus are in a sense a reflection of man's own attempt to bring order to his world. Good vs Evil takes a different approach but still attempts to explain existence in terms of duality, opposing forces. There is something of this in most religions (though Buddhists pretty much explicitly are anti-dualism).

We could perhaps speak of a duality that underlies all of these, that of Existence or Being vs Nonexistence/Nothingness/the Void. I skirt this a bit in my stuff, suggesting that all other dualities are essentially artifacts of this ultimate one, results of the interaction of Being and non-Being in an infiniverse setting. Not the sort of thing to delve deeply into a fantasy adventure setting, of course. So 'Evil' has been described as anything in Existence that strives toward Non-existence, that part of Being that no longer wishes to Be. Then I throw in a sword fight and move on..


I think another dimension to all this that is being ignored is that there can be (or not be) evil motives, evil actions and evil outcomes.

A person with good motives can do bad things (in fact, that’s pretty common) and sometimes people with good motives may do good things that, inadvertently, lead to bad outcomes.

I think it breaks my suspension of disbelief to be told that no one is ever susceptible to bad motives (greed, anger, etc) and that the morality of some actions up to murder or theft are just a matter of perspective and that, maybe in the grand scheme of things, there are no genuinely bad outcomes.
That just doesn’t seem realistic to me. People are flawed enough to give into evil motives, some actions can be morally inexcusable and some outcomes are clearly, you know, things that you wouldn’t want to happen.


I approach storytelling, even in fantasy, from an existentialist perspective. Which crucially centers around the idea that there are no objective or universally correct judgements. Even if there is a creator god, what gives that god the authority to force his opinion of right and wrong on everyone else?

Which leads to the problem of Evil.

If there is no universally correct, objective measure of good and evil, and this is part of the believe system of the people of Fantasyland, would they be using the word Evil?

You can of course still have people believe that there are things that only cause harm to everyone and are completely unnecessary, which never makes them justifiable. But that is still a personal judgement, even when 90% of all people agree on it. It's not objectively wrong.

A more practical reason why I don't like the term Evil is that it's a very easy simplification that can effortlessly free characters of any need to consider the reasoning of their enemies. If they do something that is evil, then they are evil. And if they are evil, they are 100% wrong. Which means we can just kill them all and be right in doing so.

Is there any way to have characters talk about actions which are almost universally regarded as revolting and needlessly cruel without using the term evil?

I believe that others have already covered this... but absolutely they would. Even if concept of evil is not seen as an absolute thing, there is still evil as relative to a certain group or person.

Also, I disagree that a concept of evil is "a very easy simplification that can effortlessly free characters of any need to consider the reasoning of their enemies. If they do something that is evil, then they are evil. And if they are evil, they are 100% wrong. Which means we can just kill them all and be right in doing so." . Yes, that is a possibility... but frankly, if somebody is attacking / being a threat to one's own person, or one's own people, then it does not matter whether they are evil or not - they are still a threat, and thus have to be neutralized by any means necessary. The end. Humans did not become dominant species on a planet by considering moral issues, we became dominant species by exterminating or subjugating whatever threatened that position - from cave bears to wolves. Believing that your enemies are evil only really makes any difference for propaganda in wars of aggression, but even then different justifications are still possible if you remove the concept. Big bossess will just have to think a bit more, and at any rate, necessity of such a justification will depend on a) political system, b) political culture and c) martial culture. If warfare is seen as a jolly good pastime, you don't need much justification for war; likewise, an authoritarian government needs less justification for aggression than a democratic one (regardless of whether latter is only pretending to be a democracy or not).

The only thing that will differ, I think, is the possibility of war crimes. Dehumanization of the enemy is probably the main reason why war crimes, especially against civilians, happen. If enemies are not seen as a faceless evil, a mindless threat, then civilians may be less likely to suffer. But even that depends on the era - pre-industrial armies had to loot to feed themselves, and during Thirty Years War, that looting was so effective that parts of Germany were wholly depopulated. Not because soldiers or armies were evil... but because they had to survive. It happened. Logistics.
Yep. Napoleon, arguably, was defeated more by the Spanish guerrillas than by the British army during the Peninsular campaign. The Spanish population hated the French - not least for their aggressive foraging - whereas Wellington insisted the British troops paid for the goods they needed.

Made a huge difference to the outcome, especially when you remember that the French had about five times as many soldiers as the Brits.